Monday, June 24, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 175, A Review: "Crazy For You" (Sharon Playhouse)

By James V. Ruocco

With music by George and Ira Gershwin and book by Ken Ludwig, "Crazy For You" has its heart so firmly in the right place, it's impossible not to be thrilled or excited by its flavorful menu of charm, nostalgia, laughter and good cheer.
Brilliant, funny and wonderfully at ease with its period-tinged reflections, nostalgia and heartbeat, this 1930's musical unfolds with a flash-bang-wallop flourish and cherishable gait that's hard to resist.

Giddy and carefree.
Sweet and sentimental.
Breezy and bright-colored.
Glorious and crazy.
Tuneful and delightful.

"Crazy For You" has everything you could wish for in a big-hearted musical from magnificent songs and spectacular dances to cheeky silliness and organic spirit and spunk.

The story, in a nutshell, goes something like this.
Taking its cue from the 1930 Broadway musical "Girl Crazy," "Crazy For You" is the lightweight, oft-told story of a boy, a girl, a producer, a mother, a fiancee, a laid-back town, a run down-theater facing foreclosure, a bunch of cowboys, a group of Broadway chorus girls, a well-calculated disguise, an eleventh hour surprise and a very happy ending.
Nothing serious, just boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl/boy-wins back-girl, set to music and dance.

To stage a musical like "Crazy For You" and stage it well, you need someone who completely understands musical theatre, its creative mindset, its vibrancy, it's two-act story board, its evolution, its songbook and its colorful characters. Sarah Combs who staged several productions at Sharon Playhouse including "Footloose," '"Hairspray," "Annie Get Your Gun" and last year's invigorating "All Shook Up," is the perfect choice to bring this two-act musical to life. Her directorial work is admirable, electric, straightforward, buoyant and passionate. She creates a fun-filled, frothy environment that is completely in sync with this form of musical storytelling. She knows exactly what she wants. She lets nothing get in her way or cloud her judgement. She takes chances. She thinks on her feet. She goes with the flow. She knows how a period musical looks, feels and moves. She finds new ways to tell a familiar story. And finally, she surrounds herself with the best actors, the best dancers, the best singers and the best creative team possible.

With the help of the everyone at Sharon Playhouse, she keeps "Crazy For You" on its toes and firmly rooted in the nostalgic gaiety and innocence that categorized Broadway musicals of the 1930's. Here, every actor's move, gesture, position, mood, expression, nuance and line delivery is indicative of that bygone era. Elsewhere, she knows how to fully utilize Elizabeth Popeil's brilliant, atmospheric set design to full advantage, thus, moving her actors about on every playing level, from top to bottom, without any form of unobtrusiveness. Her directorial style is so precise and natural (the set changes are absolutely flawless), nothing that happens in this musical (remember, it's the 1930's), is ever questioned, argued, out of place or out of sync for a millisecond.

The musical score, written by George (music) and Ira Gershwin (lyrics) is joyous, witty, wistful and melodically appealing. "Crazy For You," in turn, incorporates "the best of the best" from the Gershwin songbook (lyrics from Gus Kahn and Desmond Carter are also featured), using 24 songs from the duo's many hit musicals including "Girl Crazy," "Oh, Kay!" "Shall We Dance," "A Damsel in Distress" and "Treasure Girl." They are:"K-ra-zy For You," "I Can't Be Bothered Now," "Bidin' My Time," "Things Are Looking Up," "Could You Use Me," "Shall We Dance?" "Someone to Watch Over Me," "Entrance to Nevada," "Slap That Bass," "Embraceable You," "Tonight's the Night," "I Got Rhythm," "The Real American Folk Song is a Rag," "What Causes That?" "Naughty Baby," "Stiff Upper Lip," "They Can't Take That Away From Me," "But Not For Me," "But Not For Me (Reprise),"  "New York Interlude (Concerto in F)." "Nice Work If You Can Get It," "Bidin' My Time (French Reprise), " "Things Are Looking Up (Reprise)," and "Finale."

Eric Thomas Johnson who was in fine form for last season's highly entertaining "Always...Patsy Cline" at Sharon Playhouse returns as musical director for this production.  Joining Johnson (conductor/keyboard) for "Crazy For You" are Dave Pratt (trumpet), Walter Barrett (trombone), Mike Lee (bass), Liz Handman (violin), Rich Conley (reeds) and Tim Hermann (drums). As before, Johnson is a skilled musician for whom the demands of musical theatre are easily met and unleashed with the intelligence, inspiration and the affection they deserve.

Given the vast, ground-breaking George and Ira Gershwin score implemented for this particular production, Johnson, with the able assist of his exceptional orchestral team, meets the demands of the music, quite swimmingly, conveying the pulse, drive, nerviness and snap of the music, portraying it as both period piece and essential Jazz Age oeuvre. It's all here: the irrepressible brash energy, the pungent complexity, the harmonious musicality, the indelible catchy lyrics, the unique, rhythmic touches and flourishes, the breakneck tempos, the spirited spontaneity, the creative high points and the confident, saucy glissando's.

What's especially fun about this production is how each and every one of the songs - all very diverse in style and interpretation - fit neatly into the context of the piece while conforming to the mechanics of both entertainment and nostalgic Broadway musical fare. They are properly placed throughout each act. They carry the action forward with propelled interest and diversity. They create the necessary magic and candy-coated innocence of the era from whence they came. They also add zest and zing to the show's already winning formula.
Throughout "Crazy For You," Thompson lets the song material breathe and resonate so that it can take on many different colors in telling detail and convey the musical richness and imaginative dynamic of its creators. No matter what song is played - "I Got Rhythm," "But Not For Me," "Shall We Dance?" -  the song itself and the meaning behind each lyric is met with appropriate dash, pizzazz and zing.

Last year's season opener -  the very stylish and saucy "Anything Goes" at Sharon Playhouse - benefited greatly from the creative, intuitive talents of choreographer Justin Boccitto whose stylish flourishes and eye-popping dance movements heightened the show's success on every choreographic level.  Here, Boccitto, who also doubles as the show's leading man Bobby Child, succeeds on every level imaginable. From rehearsal hall to stage, he gives "Crazy For You" the necessary oomph and sparkle it deserves in terms of style, character, mood, wit, engagement and dance tableaux. From high-energy numbers that include "I Got Rhythm" and "Slap That Bass" to the the buoyant, simply-stated "Shall We Dance?" and "Nice Work If You Can Get It," Boccitto, once again, brings an honest, refreshing distinct 1930's feel to all of the dances, matched by just the right amount of attitude, innocence, sweetness, boldness, froth, candy floss and glamour. Once he gets going, there's no stopping him, which in a musical of this caliber goes a very long way.

Under his expert tutelage, the cast performs the show's stellar dance routines like nobody's business (Boccitto wouldn't have it any other way), clearly demonstrating that the dancer is, both artist, showman and athlete, trained to tackle anything at hand (there's a lot going on here from one musical number to the next), with the elegance, symmetry, style, precision and the individuality it deserves. As "Crazy For You" unfolds, the dance excellence created by Boccitto and his talented ensemble is grounded in the choreographic versatility and lyrical expressiveness envisioned by the show's creators. Everyone breathes new life into the familiar songs and dance numbers and makes them fresh again. So much so, you wish you could hit "replay"  and watch them again and again.

In the role of Bobby Child, a disillusioned New York banker who'd rather star in a Broadway musical that deal with other people's money, Justin Boccitto offers a five star character turn that's chock full of joy, charisma, personality and 1930's spark and razzle dazzle. As actor, singer and dancer, he's the real deal- endearing, attractive, smart and savvy. Make no mistake about it. No matter what he does, you're with him every step of the way. It's a role he plays believably and ever so charmingly like a roguish young Lawrence Harvey, a dashing Fred Astaire and a very debonair Gene Kelly all rolled up into one. He is also blessed with the kind of grace and easy charisma that defines every dance moment. He goes with the flow and makes everything he does spontaneous rather than rehearsed. And vocally, he deftly nails the Gershwin songs with heart, authority, wisdom and glorious embellishment.

As Polly Baker, the young, tomboyish, fiercely-minded Nevada woman whom Bobby falls head-over-heels with in three minutes of their first meeting , Amanda Lea LaVergne enchants, beguiles, delights and entertains, offering yet another magnetic star turn just as she did as Reno Sweeney in last year's rousing "Anything Goes" at Sharon Playhouse. Like Boccitto, she is well cast and polished to perfection, playing her part with defining spunk, sass, enchantment and undeniable spirit. But Polly is her own creation. It's a role she plays intuitively and believably (she is very mindful of the period and its nostalgic link to the past) on every level - actress, singer and dancer - and one she invests with the style and spirit of a Broadway leading lady who enjoys being on stage in front of an audience doing what she loves best.

Addison Garner as seductress Irene Roth, is both mischievous and sexy as she sings the marvelously choreographed "Naughty Baby" to rattled Deadlock, Nevada saloon keeper Lank Hawkins, played with appropriate angst and likeability by Ryan Thomas Curley. As New York showbiz impresario Bella Zangler. Joey Sorge is funny, delightful and in fine voice, particularly during his showstopping "What Causes That?" duet with Boccitto. His mirroring scene with the actor's fake Bella Zangler is perfectly executed in grand vaudevillian style and it's one of the major highlights of Act II.

Rounding out the cast are Katie Hardin, Julianna Babb, Heather Klobukowski, Delaney Bailey, Amber Cameron, Dave Cadwell, Renee Griese, Michelle Lemon, Emily Soell, Bobby MacDonell, TJ Swetz, Dan Warman, Tony Harkin, TJ Kubler, John Champion, Liam Grimaldi, Joshua Spencer, Duane Estes and Barbara Zucker-Pinchoff. They too contribute greatly to the musical's success. They can act, sing, dance, tap dance, play comedy, appreciate a good parody and even simulate a French Revolution via stacked chairs (an inside joke about "Les Miserables, if case you haven't guessed).

Technically, the two-act musical is solid, lock, stock and barrel with Elizabeth Popeil's already mentioned stunning set design, Kurt Alger's colorful, perky and stylish costume and wig designs and Zack Pizza's evocative, richly detailed lighting design and palate.

In conclusion, "Crazy For You" is the perfect summer refreshment. It is one of those big, classic Broadway musicals that's filled with one showstopping musical number after another. The songbook by George and Ira Gershwin is both catchy and irresistible. The dancing and direction is clever, traditional and marvelously old school. The ensemble cast, from leading player to supporting and ensemble, is absolutely amazing. And the show itself not only merits a standing ovation or two, but it is one of the most exhilarating, jump-for-joy productions to come out of the Sharon Playhouse in the last year or two. If you love musicals (any frankly, who doesn't)  it doesn't get any better than this.

Photos of "Crazy For You" by Jonathan Doster.

"Crazy For You" is being staged at Sharon Playhouse (49 Amenia Rd., Sharon, CT), now through July 7.
For tickets or more information, call (*60) 364-7469

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 174, A Review: "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" (Valley Shakespeare Festival)

By James V. Ruocco

Anyone familiar with the comedies of William Shakespeare knows exactly what to expect from storylines that end happily with lovers and families united,  the celebration of a marriage or two and a bit of wisdom unleashed right before the final fade out.

Such is the case with Valley Shakespeare Festival's lively, wonderfully wacky mounting of
"The Two Gentlemen of Verona."

The main characteristics:
  • complex, silly interwoven stories and plotlines.
  • young lovers struggling to overcome problems with each other and interfering family members.
  • the frequent use of puns, double takes, pratfalls and other comic shtick.
  • mistaken identities, often involving disguise.
  • family tensions and angst that are always resolved in the end.
  • falsehoods, love letters, farewells, exotic travels, twitting, summons, bidding, pardons and explorations.

Packed  with these and other sorts of giddy up devices all designed to delight and cajole, Valley Shakespeare Festival's "Two Gentlemen" never falters for a moment.


It's impossible not to be hooked or gobsmacked by the thrill of it all.

At the center of this non-stop merriment are just two actors -  Matthew Macca and Eric Bermudez.
And yes, they play all the parts.
Yes, really.

They include:

Valentine: a young gentleman in love with the Duke of Milan's daughter Silvia.

Proteus: a young gentleman completely smitten by the lovely Julia.

Silvia: the Duke of Milan's daughter pursued by the lovesick Valentine.

Julia: the young woman beloved by Proteus.

Duke of Milan: the father of Silvia who insists his daughter marry Thurio.

 Thurio: the foolish suitor to Silvia's hand.

Eglamour: a knight at the Duke's court.

Launce: the foolish. not-so-bright manservant to Proteus.

Crab: Crab: Launce's spoiled, affection-craving dog.

Directed by Tom Simonetti, who adapted Shakespeare's text to its specially, refitted format, the production is ablaze with a comic fizz, zing and snap that does justice to the original story (believed to have been written between 1589 and 1593) and its reworking for a modern day audience. Here, as in VSF's recent staging of "The Merchant of Venice," he is in fine form. As director, he brings a knockabout madness to the piece and creates a buoyant, giggly charm oozing with full-tilt verse, organized zaniness, revolving sputter, a touch of sprawl and lots of absurd physicality.

What's especially fun here - and something that Simonetti gets right at every single turn - is the enduring comic power of the piece and its fluid staging. It's all well thought-out and planned to evolve at breakneck speed. But at the same time, there's plenty of room to improvise, toss in a timely reference, add some impromptu shtick or interact with the audience by bringing them up on stage to play trees, take off their shoes for some candid comedy bits or having them recite Shakespeare (in character, of course) off some hand-written pieces of paper.

An added bonus of "Two Gentleman" is the utilization of the actual Ole Dog Tavern dining room space which lends itself nicely to the in-the-round staging devised by Simonetti. This conceit allows a special closeness between actor and audience that not only heightens the play's appeal but thrusts everyone happily into the action at hand. Of course, anything can happen and does even when food is being served by waiters and one of the actor's decides to stop by a table and steal fries off someone's plate, pour a glass of wine for someone else or look a third person in the eye and say, "You really have no idea what the play is about, do you?"  Whatever the case, it all works quite splendidly.

The casting of Matthew Macca and Eric Bermudez is a stoke of genius on Simonetti's part and one that unfolds with both imagination and creative aplomb. In order for the play to work its magic, you have to have actors who can shift gears immediately, change from one character to the next and back again within a millisecond, think very quickly on their feet and finally, remain deeply rooted in the deeply silly antics of the actual story, as dictated by Simonetti.

The "anything goes" atmosphere of "Two Gentlemen" allows both actors to display their creative aesthetic 100 percent as they get swept up in the madness of it all. Changing costumes in full view of the audience while racing here, there and everywhere, they are a charismatic twosome whose sprint dashing and comedic range is completely refreshing, entertaining and absolutely glorious. They are inspirational, kitschy, personable and charismatic duo, reveling in the intended free-for-all, the priceless tomfoolery and the over-the-top amusement of the piece.

In conclusion, "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" succeeds on all levels. It is fun for everyone involved. It is blessed with a team of actors and a behind-the-scene's staff who not only understand the workings of the Bard, but aptly inject the production with just the right blend of wit, craziness and engagement.
Under Tom Simonetti's playful direction, the preening, the comedy and the delivery of Shakespeare's verbage is splendid, thus, heightening the show's wonderful sense of spirit, gaiety and unity. And finally, this oft-produced satire of romance and its exploration of love, friendship, bonding and loyalty is both bright and twinkly, providing good vibrations and knock-em-dead nuttiness for all involved.

"The Two Gentlemen of Verona" was staged by the Valley Shakespeare Festival at The Ole Dog Tavern (2505 Main St., Stratford, CT) on June 4.
For information about upcoming productions, call (203) (513) 9446.

Monday, June 17, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 173, A Review: "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" (ACT of CT)

By James V. Ruocco

Phil Sloves.
Morgan Billings Smith.
Graham Baker.
Colin Miyamoto.
Sumi Yu.
Emma Tattenbaum-Fine.
Amy Hutchins
John C. Baker.
Ryan Williams.

It takes a special brand of talent to make "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" click and resonate and this cast of nine does exactly that in this hilarious, illuminating production that gets high marks for ingenuity, eccentricity and honest-to-goodness good cheer.

Bold and Sassy.

"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" is exactly that and so much more.

Scripted by Rachel Sheinkin, a playwright with a knack for this sort of comic mayhem and kitsch, "Spelling Bee" teases and taunts and cajoles and delights as it pokes fun at competitions, impossible expectations, dynamic wordplay, quirky kid goofiness, child rearing, nerdy oddballs, know-it-all braggarts and so much more.

Who wins?
Who loses?
Who finds their emotional center?
Who is destined for greatness?
Who will be the top speller, years from now?

To bring "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" to life, ACT of CT has enlisted the talents of Michelle Tattenbaum, a talented auteur whose directorial credits include "Peter and the Starcatcher," "Mother Jones and the Children's Crusade," "Urinetown," "White Guy on a Bus," "Love/Stories" and "Nobody Loves You." Working from Rachel Sheinkin's hilarious play text, she crafts a swift, smartly-paced, warm-hearted entertainment ideally suited for the ACT of CT venue.

As director, she brings tremendous insight and passion to the "Spelling Bee" experience. Almost everything that happens amidst Jack Mehler's incredibly designed school auditorium set has a wonderful spontaneity about it, from the actual progression of the spelling bee competition to the pre-selected audience members who are summoned on stage to compete in the win or lose proceedings, completely unprepared for what lies ahead.

Elsewhere, Tannenbaum has great fun defining each of the central characters and their role in the story, dramatically, comically and musically. There's also a cleverly-orchestrated, running gag about the actual words that everyone in the competition is asked to spell- crepuscule, syzyay, weltanschauug, strabismus, for example - that is conveyed with appropriate cheer and wicked abandon by both director and her very able cast. Laughter, including loud belly laughs, abounds throughout the production, much to the delight of everyone on stage and in the audience.

The musical score for "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" was written by William Finn (music and lyrics). It contains 19 original songs. They are "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," "The Rules/My Favorite Moment of the Bee," "My Friend, the Dictionary," "Pandemonium," "I'm Not That Smart," "Magic Foot," "Pandemonium (Reprise)," "My Favorite Moment of the Bee 2," "Prayer of the Comfort Counselor," "Chips' Lament," "Woe Is Me," "I'm Not That Smart (Reprise)," "I Speak Six Languages," "The I Love You Song," "Woe Is Me (Reprise)," "My Favorite Moment of the Bee 3," "Second," "Champion" and "Finale/The Last Goodbye."

Finn's musical take is both hilarious and poignant, guided by cleverly-timed bits about awkward adolescence, first-time erections, intimidation, vindictiveness, magic footwork, vanity, mockery, gay pride, spelling bee anticipation, parenting, rule books and shining moments that thrust the competitors in the spotlight. Not exactly Sondheim, Webber, Schwartz or Lerner and Loewe, the "Spelling Bee" score" is both serviceable to the plot, the story and the characters who bring the individual songs and ensemble numbers to life.

Regardless, the actual conceit is clever, cynical, simplistic, playful, emotional and crazy-intense. There's also an innate optimism and cascading swirl to the music and lyrics, which heighten the patter, the definition and finally, the insight into the human condition.

Overseeing Finn's work is musical director Katya Stanislavskaya and music supervisor Bryan Perri, both of whom are akin to the speciality of the piece, its witty word play, its complex melodies, its resounding silliness and its vast, emotional landscape. With the able assist of band members Tom Cuffari, Rob Jacoby, Dennis J. Arcano and Melissa Westgate, the pairing of all parties allow the material to gel, evolve and resonate with the right directness, color and fundamental simplicity as dictated by Finn. The cast, in turn, have great fun with the music, giving it plenty of sparkle and energy to make it gleam and pulse with a steady flow and meaningful aesthetic.

"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" stars Morgan Billings Smith as Olive Ostrovsky, Phil Sloves as William Barfee, Graham Baker as Leaf Coneybear, Amy Hutchins as Rona Lisa Peretti, John C. Baker as Douglas Panch, Colin Miyamoto as Chip Tolentino, Emma Tattenbaum-Fine as Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, Sumi Yu as Marcy Park and  Ryan Williams as Mitch Mahoney.

With casting that's absolutely perfect, each of these nine performers gets his or her chance to shine as "Spelling Bee" takes them on a musical journey through song, dance and wordplay. As actors everyone is completely in sync with the show's concept, its evolution, its quirkiness and the very characters they are asked to portray. It's all rehearsed, of course, but there's such honesty and realness to everything that they say and do, you often forget that they are actors performing in a play. Vocally, this is as polished a group of singers out there, as was the case with both "Evita" and "Working,"  staged earlier this season at ACT. They hit the right notes. They hit the right harmonies. And they do it so, most engagingly. They also never once break character, which, in a show of this nature is very easy to do.

"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" is a witty, ingenious, sweet and sentimental musical confection that awakens the little kid - or should I say smart ass - in all of us. It is chock fun of     unparalleled energy, melancholy and melt-down crazy shtick. Michelle Tattenbaum's direction is smart and savvy. The music is sharp, gimmicky and absolute FUN. The performances are stellar and quirky. And the overall experience of it all, is both special and endearing, an ACT of CT trademark you're not likely to forget for quite some time.

"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" is being staged at ACT of CT (36 Old Quarry Rd., Ridgefield, CT),  now through June 23.
For tickets or more information, call (475) 215-5433.

For Darren: 

Sunday, June 16, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 172, A Review: "Mamma Mia!" (Connecticut Repertory Theatre)

By James V. Ruocco

Some shows are meant to be performed over and over and "Mamma Mia!" the hit London/Broadway musical that's been bookmarked into the catalog of musical theater "success" stories for a couple of decades, shows absolutely no sign of slowing down.
It is one of those shows that demonstrates the enduring power of romantic musicals that come gift wrapped with catchy scores, fluid staging, cute characters, lively choreography and happy endings that actors and audiences simply cannot get enough of.

Connecticut Repertory Theatre's bouncy, feel-good incarnation of  "Mamma Mia!" furthers that notion in a very good way.

It is terrific fun.
It is energetic and full-out.
It is sweet and syrupy.
It is heartwarming and charming.
It is shrewd and gleeful.
It is a welcome diversion.

With Terrence Mann at the helm as director working alongside Geraldine Anello as musical director and Mary Ann Lamb and Jessica Walker doing double duty as choreographer's,  this "Mamma Mia!"  dances to its own tune, which is part of its charm and guilty pleasure allure. And therein, lies its enjoyment.

The story of "Mamma Mia! " as written by Catherine Johnson, is simple enough. As the musical opens (the action is set somewhere on an island in Greece), 21-year-old Sophie Sheridan finds her mother Donna's diary from 1979 and decides to contact the three guys mentioned - Sam, Harry and Bill - one of whom could very well be her father - and invite them to her upcoming wedding to Sky.  Donna's two best friends - Tanya and Rosie - are also en route to the nuptials, but no one has any idea of what Sophie has done, not even her mother. Well, not at first, anyway.

Staging "Mamma Mia!" is acclaimed actor/director Terrence Mann whose Broadway credits include starring roles in "Les Miserables," "Cats," "Beauty and the Beast," "The Scarlet Pimpernel," "Tuck Everlasting" and "Finding Neverland." A creative talent who knows theater inside out, front and backwards and upside down, Mann brings tremendous wit, savvy and passion to this production along with a marvelous sense of intuitive stagecraft which kicks it into orbit and keeps it spinning and twirling most engagingly.

The core of this oft-produced musical comes from its heart, its soul, its romance, its intimacy and its belief that second chances in life are not only possible, but they can and do work if the fates and consenting parties allow it to happen. Here, those story elements and others are shaped brilliantly and cleverly by Mann who allows this "Mamma Mia!" to breathe, evolve and fly naturally through both conversational interludes and those magical musical moments when characters burst into song to express their innermost thoughts. Nothing is taken for granted. Nothing looks out of place. Nothing is exaggerated. And nothing is thrown for laughter's sake that doesn't really belong.

What sets this production apart from others is that Mann looks at it differently, as both actor and director. He knows what works and what doesn't. He knows how an actor speaks, moves and creates. He knows what to highlight and when to pause. As creator, he also brings a remarkable freshness and appropriately winsome spark to the material that is reflective in the staging, the blocking, the interactions, the songs and the fluidity of the set changes, which are not only impeccably timed to the beat of the music, but never once stop the action dead in its tracks. The cast, all of whom remain in character as they happily move scenery and props into place, accomplish this feat swimmingly, taking their cues directly from Mann and the show's amazing creative team. 

Based on the songs of ABBA, composed by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus (Stig Andersson is also credited in the footnotes for certain songs used in the two-act musical), "Mamma Mia" includes 26 musical numbers culled from the pop-tinged ABBA songbook. They are "Prologue/I Have a Dream," "Honey, Honey," "Money, Money, Money," "Thank You For the Music," "Mamma Mia!" "Chiquitita," "Dancing Queen," "Lay All Your Love On Me," "Super Trouper," "Gimme, Gimme, Gimme (A Man After Midnight)," "Voulez Vous," "Under Attack," "One of Us," "S.O.S.," "Does Your Mother Know?" "Knowing Me, Knowing You," "Our Last Summer," "Slipping Through My Fingers," "The Winner Takes It All," "Take a Chance On Me," "I Do, I Do, I Do," "I Have a Dream," "Mamma Mia! (Encore)," "Dancing Queen (Encore)" and "Waterloo."
The songs themselves, nicely incorporated into Catherine Johnson's romantic story, are serviceable to the plot, it's progression and the various characters who sing them. Every single one of them are fun, fun, fun and completely hummable.

With Geraldine Anello as musical director, "Mamma Mia!" achieves a musical greatness that unfolds with plenty of life, plenty of heart, plenty of snap and plenty of disco ball fantasia. Completely akin to the song style that is ABBA - pop rock, light ballads, folksy glam, novelty kitsch - Anello dutifully respects and understands the unstoppable, invincibly commercial romantic bliss that is ABBA, the group's lathered expressionism and the surface beauty and intimacy of the songs themselves. That, in a musical of this nature, goes a very long way.

Working alongside a handpicked team of exceptional musicians (Tom McDonough, Chris Coffey, Thomas Bora, Richard "Gus" Gustamachio, Alan Dougherty,  Timothy Masacarinas, Nick Cutroneo and Matt McCauley), Anello brings a certain freshness to the "Mamma Mia!" score, matched by a nuanced verve and pulsating flair. Everyone is totally in sync with ABBA's achievements - "Mamma Mia!" Dancing Queen," "Voulez Vous," "Super Trouper" - throughout the two-act musical, marvelously capturing the feeling, the confidence, the color and the sparkle evident in the vibrant and varied musical score. At times, the orchestral sound is so polished and uninhibited, that sonic brilliance allows you to enjoy and experience the music of "Mamma Mia" from an entirely new, unique perspective.

Choreography, when done right, is also key to the "Mamma Mia!" experience. Here, Mary Ann Lamb and Jessica Walker take hold of the many musical numbers than require specialized dance movement and create a whirlwind of ABBA frenzy that's catchy, inventive, acrobatic, feverish and sugar-charged high. Things are flashy. Things are celebratory. Things are ferocious. Things are gum-drop gooey. Things are sexy. Things are clean. Things are well-rehearsed. Things are trademark athletic.  Though it all, the entire "Mamma Mia!" cast are in fine form, reveling in the eye-popping, playful, wildly uninhibited choreography devised by Lamb and Walker, always putting their best foot forward, no matter what the dynamic dance duo have up their sleeve. They have so much fun, it's impossible not to be moved or completely swept up in the on-stage dance mania of it all.

"Mamma Mia!" stars Jessica Hendy as Donna Sheridan, Kelly McCarty as Sophie Sheridan,
Jennifer Cody as Rosie, Lauren Blackman as Tanya, Bradley Dean as Sam Carmichael, Jamie Colburn as Bill Austin, Rob Barnes as Harry Bright, Mason Reeves as Sky, RJ Higton as Pepper, Torrie D'Alessandro as Ali and  Helen Shen as Lisa. Individually or coming together as an ensemble, everyone delivers important, confident performances that are so real and so natural, the essential message of the piece resonates believably and emotionally at every turn without any form of calculation or hesitation. Vocally, their teamwork is stellar and pitch-perfect as is their ability to cut loose with the many different dances they are asked to perform under Lamb and Walker's tutelage. As actors, they also bring a zing and snap to the story that never falters, offset by a certain raw truthfulness, which in a musical of this nature goes a very long way.

The perfect summer refreshment, "Mamma Mia!" is a joyful, uplifting entertainment that pulls out all the ABBA classics with obvious affection, sugar-coated sparkle, giddy love and forgivable heartbreak. It's typical Broadway musical fare that puts ABBA back on the brain again, performed with dazzling exhilaration by a very talented, attractive cast under Terrence Mann's astute, up-tempo direction. The dancing, choreographed by Mary Ann Walker  and Jessica Walker, is fast, frenzied and breezy. The story is ridiculously sunny and cheery and Lifetime Movie romantic. The set, designed by Tim Brown, is both atmospheric and gorgeous.
"Mamma Mia!" is also the perfect musical to jump start the summer, put a smile on your face, work you into a fevered sweat and send you out through the theater doors on a real sugar high like no other.

"Mamma Mia!"  is being staged at Connecticut Repertory Theatre (Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre, 2132 Hillside Rd., Storrs, CT), now through June 22.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 486-2113.

Friday, June 14, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 171, A Review: "On Your Feet" (Westchester Broadway Theatre)

By James V. Ruocco

It's not only the rhythm that gets you in Westchester Broadway Theatre's bright and bouncy "On Your Feet," it's the entire show.
A genuine fusion of Broadway musical, top 40 song hits and frenzied Latino beats and rhythms, "On Your Feet" is everything you'd expect from a show-biz biography about Gloria and Emilio Estefan...and then some.

It hops.
It shines.
It snaps.
It soars.
It delights.

What's nice about this particular show is that it doesn't pretend to be anything than what it is. No pretense. No padding. No melodrama. No rise-to-the-top silliness. No chart topping success story cliches. No sidestepping of facts, family, conflict and heartache.
It's all right here, front and center, in glorious, eye-popping Technicolor.

Written by Alexander Dinelaris, "On Your Feet" travels back in time through flashback to retrace Cuban-born Gloria Estefan's musical career from its humble beginnings to her triumphant re-emergence to the concert stage following a near-fatal accident that nearly derailed her professional rise to fame in the music industry.

Told through a series of well-positioned story arcs that are fast and fluid, "On Your Feet" is packed with just the right amount of heart, soul, conflict and social context to keep things both grounded and interesting. There are vivid memories of Gloria's early home life with her mother and grandmother. There are glimpses, mostly in memory and dreams, of her late father. The singer's road to success, her Latin music crossover and her meeting and marriage to Emilio Estefan are also addressed in typical Broadway musical fashion, but without the cliches and overkill that often lessened the truthfulness of other musical showbiz biographies. Here, Dinelaris' narrative is appropriate, likeable, flavorful and cool.

Staging "On Your Feet" is Donna Drake, a directorial presence whose understanding and knowledge of musical theatre is used to full advantage. Working alongside choreographer Rhonda Miller, she moves the action forward swiftly and directly with an emphasis on realness and honesty, facilitated by the right character interactions, conversations, established scenes and musical numbers that heighten the experience of live stage musical entertainment.

As "On Your Feet" evolves, Drake utilizes everything within her grasp - actors, musicians, designers - to fill the stage with that one-two-three slice of vibrancy, color, surprise and sound necessary to keep her audience riveted in the storytelling at hand. That said, all of that hyperactivity and exhilaration she unleashes, pays off as does her skillfully timed staging with nary a halt, a hiccup or a hesitation. Like others before her, Drake is a director who knows what she wants and she runs with it, well aware of the buzz she creates on stage and in the audience. Here, it makes all the difference in the world.

"On Your Feet" features music produced by Gloria and Emilio Estefan and Miami Sound Machine. Songs include "Coming Out of the Dark," "Don't Wanna Lose You," "Conga," "Live For Loving You," "If I Never Get to Tell You," "You'll Be Mine," "Get On Your Feet," "Anything For You," "1-2-3," "Oye," "Everlasting Love" and "The Rhythm Is Gonna Get You."

Musical direction by Bob Bray with the able assist of a ten-member band of musicians, is energized, stirring, salsa-based and bristling with pungent musicality that does justice to the Estefan/Miami Sound Machine songbook and its Latino conceit. Nothing, of course, is taken for granted. The shifting moods of the songs, right down to the smallest detail, get the attention they deserve with total involvement coming from both Bray and his orchestral team.

Character-driven songs by the principal performers and their towering climaxes are truly impressive as are Bray's interpretive choices and decisions regarding the show's big ensemble numbers, which are beautifully sung by the entire harmonious "On Your Feet" cast. Altogether, the Westchester Broadway Theatre orchestra has never sounded better or more connected to the music, inside out and all around. Despite familiarity, almost everything sounds refreshingly alive and new. And the audience, in turn, responds with loud cheers and applause that only furthers that obvious notion.

The two-act musical stars Maria Bilbao as Gloria Estefan, Jose Luaces as Emilio Estefan, Karmine Alers as Gloria Fajardo, Sandy Rosenberg as Consuelo and Byron St. Cyr as Jose.

In the role of Gloria Estefan, Maria Bilbao is is knockout. Charismatic, vivacious and very, very passionate, she possesses a magnificent singing voice, stage presence and glamorous allure quite similar to that of the dynamic recording artist she is asked to portray. What's especially gratifying about her performance here is that it's both real and spirited and comes directly from the heart. Her singing is rich, luscious and expressive with just the right amount of Latino pulse, magic and fire. As an actress, she performs brilliantly, completely in sync with the passion, personality and vibrancy that is Gloria Estefan.

Jose Luaces as Gloria's husband Emilio, brings a piercing angst, sexiness and vulnerability to the part, which he projects with viable immediacy. Vocally, his singing is full-bodied, replete with every variation of emotion. As Gloria's mother, Karmine Alers is a fiery presence and passionate singer whose big vocal "Mi Tierra," performed during the second half of Act I, emerges a genuine showstopper well worthy of a standing ovation. Sandy Rosenberg, last seen as the egotistical diva Carlotta in WBT's "Phantom," plays Gloria's loving abuela, the kind-hearted woman who pushed and encouraged her granddaughter to perform, with sincerity, warmth and tremendous dedication. It's all heartrendingly acted. As Gloria's father Jose, Byron St.Cyr delivers a fine performance fraught with believable emotion, power and seriousness.

Smart, lively, nostalgic and vastly entertaining, "On Your Feet" celebrates the life and music of Gloria Estefan in grand, biographical jukebox style. The incredibly talented cast is magnificent. The music is a perfect ten. Rhonda Miller's choreography is both fiery and spirited. 
This is one of those musicals where things are so much fun, a better time cannot be had. You'll laugh.You'll cry. You'll clap. You'll dance. And when it all ends, you'll probably find yourself singing Estefan's enormously catchy music full tilt or buying a return ticket or two to the show for an upcoming performance. You won't be alone.

"On Your Feet" is being staged at Westchester Broadway Theatre (1 Broadway Plaza, Elmsford, NY), now through August 4.
For tickets or more information, call (914) 592-2222.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 170, A Review: "Godspell" (Ivoryton Playhouse)

By James V. Ruocco

Sam Sherwood.
Carson Higgins.
Sam Given.
Lilly Tobin.
Morgan Morse.
Gabriella Saramago.
Jerica Exum.
Kedrick Faulk.
Josh Walker.
Kaileah Hankerson.

This amazing cast of ten bring real rock concert pulse and vibe to Ivoryton Playhouse's impassioned  retelling of "Godspell," the 1971 Stephen Schwartz musical that takes its cue from a random series of accessible parables, freely adapted from "The Gospel According to Matthew."

Wonderfully Captivating.
Quick Witted and Emotional.

This "Godspell" not only has a beautiful, enriched harmony about it, but it is accompanied by a clear-sighted, modern-day vision that is assertive, commanding, visionary and palpable. And that is exactly what sets it apart from other productions of the same name.

If this incarnation is altogether more endearing and trail blazing in execution, that's because it has been directed by Jacqueline Hubbard, the award-winning executive/artistic director of Ivoryton Playhouse. Celebrating 25 years at the theater, she brings a savvy,  intuitive mindset to every play or musical she has directed along with a directorial dynamic, rich in execution, invention, illumination and rediscovery.

So who better than Hubbard to direct "Godspell?"

For this interpretation,  she uses the reworked, licensed 2012 version of the show, which includes the stirring ballad "Beautiful City" from the 1973 film and better yet, she opens the show with "Tower of Babble," a weighty, important  musical number almost always omitted from every production of "Godspell," but lovingly restored here at Ivoryton. That song, a ground-breaker of sorts, immediately sets the tone for what's to follow, using some some very intricate, imaginative staging by Hubbard that not only makes the first 10 minutes of the musical sizzle and resonate, but also introduces the very different, colorful characters who play a key role in the recognizable Jesus/ Judas story and the many parables conceived and re-imagined by playwright John-Michael Tebelak who also wrote for the book for the original 1971 production of "Godspell."

Staging "Godspell," Hubbard breathes new life into the oft-produced musical, using a refreshing honesty and unified vibrancy that other productions seem to miss. Mind you, this is not just any romp through the gospels. With Hubbard as its interpreter, the show's message of love and acceptance in a much darker world hits home significantly and carries lots of well-orchestrated humor, joy, pathos and tears with it. Alas, her observations, depiction and treatment of the material are specific, detailed, and performed without any whiff of calculation.

Using the refitted 2012 play script, Hubbard gives the musical a rapid-fire eagerness that works especially well, now that "Godspell" has been given a much-needed makeover. Moreover, she doesn't clutter the production with unnecessary shtick or silly, contrived, slightly improvised staging that detracts from the show's strung-together parables and Schwartz's breezy "Godspell" musical score. This conceit is applied to scene after scene and song after song. Mind you, there is some playful vaudevillian humor interspersed here and there, but it's straightforward and direct without that annoying overkill that made other "Godspell" revivals tiresome, clunky and amateurish. Hubbard's vision is well thought out, well timed and smartly crafted. She knows exactly what she wants. Her cast follows her cue and runs with it. And the energy level of everyone involved, is completely and honestly refreshing.

For "Godspell,"  Hubbard has enlisted the talents of choreographer Todd Underwood whose Ivoryton Playhouse credits include "Rent," "West Side Story," "Saturday Night Fever" and last season's "A Chorus Line" and "Grease." The perfect candidate to bring the "Godspell" story to life in terms of dance, Underwood's playful choreography is both appealing, intuitive and stylish. Given Schwartz's trademark score, he crafts potent, powerfully performed staging that makes every choreographed number, vivid and individual.

Banish all thoughts of overkill or hotshot extravagance with Underwood at the helm. Whereas other choreographers tend to overemphasize the "Godspell" material to the point of sheer ridiculousness using doodlebug flourishes and rattling movements and tableaux's that have absolutely nothing to do with the story at hand, Underwood's showman's chutzpah is vaudevillian, respectful, controlled and perfectly in sync with Schwartz's conceit for "Godspell" and the choices dictated by the music and the characters who populate the parabalstic story.

As "Godspell" unfolds, Underwood lets his talented ensemble cast swim and frolic through "Tower of Babble," "Turn Back, O Man," "Prepare Ye," "Light of the World" and "Learn Your Lessons Well," among others, with optimistic, powerful and creative abandon. Bodies blend, embrace and support, creating unified movements, prances and jaunty feats that dazzle or stand alone individually. Or they simply groove with ease, swirl, dip or twirl, spin and jump depending on the number at hand or the music's percussive prompting. It's all very versatile, unique and completely in harmony with the show's gospel parables and teachings of important lessons through song, dance, speech and movement.

With music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, "Godspell" contains 18 musical numbers. They are "Prologue," "Tower of Babble," "Prepare Ye," "Save the People," "Day By Day," "Learn Your Lessons Well," "Bless the Lord," "All For the Best," "All Good Gifts," "Light of the World," "Learn Your Lessons Well (Reprise)," "Turn Back, O Man," "Alas For You," ""By My Side," "We Beseech Thee," "Beautiful City," "On the Willows" and "Finale."
Then and now, Schwartz knows how to craft songs that are well worth listening to. His gift for melody and lyrical representation is effective and seasoned. There's also a truthfulness to his musicality, most noticeable in how a song functions in a show, how it is positioned and how it drives the storytelling forward unobtrusively.

At Ivoryton, musical direction for "Godspell" is provided by Michael Morris whose previous work at the Playhouse includes "Dreamgirls," "Rent," "A Night with Janis Joplin" and "A Chorus Line." Doubling at the keyboards and as conductor, he creates a shimmering aura of melody and rhythmic melodrama that is lucid, sweet, endlessly colorful and often pillow-soft. The pop-rock charm of Schwartz's popular musical score is revitalized with youthful exuberance and connective eagerness. There's also a raw eclecticism to the music that is funky, folksy, glam and marshmallow fluffy.

Working alongside his trio of handpicked, talented musicians - Billy Bivona on guitars, David Uhl on bass and Alex Giosa on percussion and drums - Morris makes every moment of the "Godspell" musical songbook uplifting and memorable. Its coruscating energy is fueled by festive glitter and sheen, ripe piquancy, heartfelt shivers and waves and nicely layered imaginative rhythms, beats and tonalities. This musical quartet also brings a freshly minted sound to such such hummable treats as "Day By Day," "Turn Back, O Man," "Beautiful City" "Save the People" and "By My Side."  There's so much to marvel at, the audience happily sits there transfixed, quietly enjoying and savoring the impressive power of the "Godspell" orchestral sound and its tremendous vitality.

"Godspell" stars Sam Sherwood as Jesus and Carson Higgins as John the Baptist/Judas. Sam Given, Lilly Tobin, Jerica Exum, Josh Walker, Morgan Morse, Gabriella Saramago, Kedrick Faulk and Kaileah Hankerson represent the followers.

Sam Sherwood, in the role of Jesus, is handsome, smiley-faced, passionate and three-dimensional, which is exactly what the part calls for. Here, as in last season's "Once," he oozes plenty of innate charm and warmth and works hard to get everything right, which he does. Vocally, he impresses with a pitch-perfect sound, most noticeable in "Beautiful City," "Save the People" and "Alas For You." He also naturally connects with everyone in the cast, which, in order for "Godspell" to work its magic, is mandatory. In the dual role of Judas and John the Baptist, Carson Higgins is strong voiced and commanding. There's lots of edge and angst to his interpretation along with an obvious vulnerability and complexity. His vocal rendition of "Prepare Ye" is both honest and dynamic, as is his well-delivered "All For the Best" duet with Sherwood.

From "A Chorus Line" to "Godspell," Sam Given takes you on a supercharged journey into make-believe that's full-throttle, fast-paced, beautifully persuasive, sweet and honeyed and supremely confident. From his first entrance in the show to his powerhouse Act II solo turn "Turn Back,  O Man," which he performs with wild abandon, Given delivers the goods - and then some - with a determined to conquer persona that's fantastically entertaining, full of sparkle, rich in character and clearly inspired.
What's especially gratifying about Given is that he's completely genuine, comically and dramatically expressive and entertainingly electrifying. At the same time, he dances to his own tune as he dons his signature Millie Grams wig, costuming, make-up and glitter to build and solidify a female characterization of attitude, spunk, polish and soulful passion guaranteed to drive any audience wild.

Given, in drag, is a brilliant dance off between appearance and reality, fraught with resilience, emotion, diversity and glitter ball magic. It's so wonderfully balanced and enacted, if anyone is doing "Mame," Sam is your man. Just think of the possibilities. The pose, the look, the performance, the songs, the character. Given can do it blindfolded. 

Rounding out the "Godspell" cast are Lily Tobin, Jerica Exum, Morgan Morse, Kedrick Faulk, Kalieah Hankerson, Josh Walker and Gabriella Saramago. They also contribute greatly to the musical's greatness as both ensemble players and soloists, all of whom get their moment to shine in musical numbers ranging from "Day By Day" and  "Light of the World" to "Learn Your Lessons Well" and "Bless the Lord."  All seven bring a bit of brilliance, elan and peppy vibe to "Godspell." They also seem to be enjoying themselves, which in a musical of this nature, goes a very long way.

The only theater to get "Godspell' right in the last decade or so, this Ivoryton Playhouse presentation is timeless, spiritual, lively and original. It turns the story of Jesus and his followers into something both earnest and meaningful. The music is rich and melodic. The atmospheric set design by Martin Scott Marchitto is outstanding. Cully Long's costumes are both imaginative and colorful. Hubbard, Underwood and Morris are the perfect creative trifecta. The cast is sensational. And the show's reworked once-over and radical kick, allows it to pulse and resonate with today's audience. That said, you haven't seen "Godspell" until you see it at Ivoryton.

"Godspell" is being staged at Ivoryton Playhouse (103 Main St., Ivoryton, CT), now through June 16.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 767-7318